In its 20 years of history, Hot 97's Summer Jam is one of the few hip-hop events that has always managed to take whatever is happening in urban music and place it on stage right in front of 40,000 people. In terms of curating the culture, checking the temperature on what's popping, what the streets are checking for, what's hitting on the radio, perhaps nobody has done it better. So why does it feel like the excitement around Summer Jam just isn't there anymore? Has Summer Jam lost its way?
It's possible. One of the reasons why Summer Jam—as a concept, at least—initially worked so well is because when it started in 1994, hip-hop's center was undeniably rooted in New York City. That year, the line-up featured Nas, Wu-Tang Clan and A Tribe Called Quest, not to mention less-celebrated acts like Gangstarr, Black Moon and a pre-Hollywood Queen Latifah. The year after that saw the Notorious B.I.G. take the stage. After that it was the Fugees and Mary J. Blige. Diddy, Mase and Lil' Kim followed on their heels. In the '90s, New York ran hip-hop, and Summer Jam reflected that.
Yet over the last 10 years, hip-hop's core audience has fractured, the tastes of rap fans now splintered along party lines. And with blogs and websites taking over the role that traditional radio might have once played—putting people on to new music—it seems that most people are lost in their own worlds, listening to whatever individual artist it is they're listening to. Consequently, there are very few acts who dominate the conversation and have full command of the audience's attention. But there are some—Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West, Drake, Lil Wayne, Jay-Z—and none of them are officially on tap for this year's Summer Jam. So what gives?
The blame falls not to Hot 97 or the artists, but rather to the industry itself. In the '90s and for the better part of the new millennium, acts made their money by selling high-priced compact discs, with little attention given to their live performances. Concerts were an afterthought, and things like Summer Jam were seen as promotional efforts, ways to galvanize support at the radio station. But now a Jay-Z or Kanye West concert in its own regard is worth millions of dollars in revenue for each respective artist, so what incentive do they really have to come out and play something like Summer Jam? If they don't have a record to push, something they needed the station to stand behind, there's none, really. And radio stations in other markets, keying in on the success of Hot 97's Summer Jam, have created their own Summer Jams—to say nothing of things like the BET Experience—making the landscape for booking talent more crowded than it ever was.
Another thing that buoyed Summer Jam for many years was rap's competitive ethos and much of the infighting that occurred between rival artists, clicks and crews. Fans got excited about the concert as much for who was performing as for who they might bring on stage and what they might say. Who can forget Jay-Z performing half of “Takeover” in 2001, while bringing Michael Jackson out? Or the controversy surrounding Nas' boycott of the show a year later when the station wouldn't let him burn a Jay-Z dummy in effigy? How about Eminem destroying his Source award in 2003? Or Game—a West coast rapper on 50 Cent's East coast turf, no less—throwing his G-Unit chain into the crowd in 2005?
In recent years, however, hip-hop has gotten much more chummy. Sure, artists still have their issues—who can forget Drake and Chris Brown's nightclub brawl?—but by and large acts have realized that they can make better music and more money by working together. A rising tide lifts all boats, as the saying goes. And while there have been undeniably weird moments—T-Pain mugging while Jay-Z performed “D.O.A. (Death of Autotune)” in 2009; for example—there hasn't been any full-on drama. At least none that comes by way of the artist's doing. If anything, Summer Jam's biggest moment of the modern era was self-inflicted; Nicki Minaj famously backed out of her performance in 2012 after she caught wind of on-air personality Peter Rosenberg dissing “Starships” during the concert's day-time events.
This isn't all to say that Summer Jam 2014 won't be amazing. The line-up this year is particularly comprehensive. For the earthy crowd and white people there are The Roots; for the kids Wiz Khalifa, Y.G., Ty Dolla $ign, DJ Mustard and Kid Ink; for the West Indian massive there's Bunji Garlin; representing the new generation are Action Bronson and Troy Ave; for the women there's Trey Songz, plus Nicki Minaj and Y.M.C.M.B.; heavyweights like Nas and 50 Cent will bring some of that classic vibe, hopefully entertaining the older people in attendance. That's a ton of talent to have the opportunity to watch during the course of one evening.
Is it enough to get people excited? Tough to say. There are rumors that Lil Wayne will be appearing with Nicki Minaj; where those two are, Drake isn't far behind. The potential for 50 Cent to reunite with the rest of the members of G-Unit is extremely high. And with the west coast being represented by Y.G., Mustard and Ty Dolla $ign, it's possible that Kendrick Lamar—who's performing with that trio the day before at the Summer Jam for Boston's Jam'n 94.5—will show up. Maybe Game will, too. The Roots have no shortage of celebrity friends, so we have few doubts that they'll bring surprises along (we suspect a rare D'Angelo sighting). Could Wiz Khalifa bring out Juicy J? Could Nas bring out Foxy Brown, Nature and A.Z.? Potentially.
If none of that happens, however, we won't be too down about it. As long as Papoose rushes the stage again this year, we're good. And Summer Jam will be too. —Paul Cantor